Monday, 2 November 2009

Fortnum & Mason: Dom Pérignon & jamón

There is possibly only one thing better than drinking Dom Pérignon 2000 on a Monday evening, and that's drinking Dom Pérignon 2000 with Joselito Gran Reserva ham, or jamón as I prefer to call it.

Fortnum & Mason had laid on a tasting of the latest 'vintage' of Joselito – 2007 – alongside millennium vintage Dom Pérignon and, as a comparison, 2006 Joselito. The two brands are more similar than you might think. Joselito is in the top tier of Iberico ham producers – a first growth of the ham world occupying the same sort of niche in its field as Dom Pérignon does Champagne, with an 'off the leg' slice price of £200/kg and an 8kg ham going for £600 a pop.

So do Dom Pérignon and jamón make for a match in gourmet heaven? You wouldn't think so, but they go surprisingly well. Neither dominates the other. The ham seems to bring out the freshness of the Champagne and tempers the acidity, while the wine cuts through the fat of the ham and cleanses the palate.

It was fascinating to compare the jamón 'vintages'. After tasting a few slithers of each, you quickly become aware of the vast differences between the two. The younger 2007 vintage was lighter in colour and more translucent. Fine as silk with marbly flesh, its delicacy and refinement proved a better platefellow for the DP than the richer '06.

The 2006 was noticeably darker - ham ages the opposite way to wine, gaining colour with age and turning from light red to dark purple at its oldest. The '06 was almost purple and had a much stronger, more intense flavour. Fattier, meatier and richer, you could taste the maturity. It had a delicious umami-rich savouriness that would pair wonderfully with a bone dry Fino or Manzanilla.

How good a ham tastes depends on three things: the breed, the feed and the ageing process. Hams are cured in cellars for varying lengths of time depending on their size. Joselito is aged for a minimum of three years and a maximum of seven. The heavenly ham, known as pata negra, comes from black Iberico pigs raised in south-west Spain. In order to be called Iberico, the pigs must have at least 75% Iberico blood, but Zac Innes, Brindisa's maestro cortador, assures me that Joselito only use 100% Iberico pigs.

The best hams, known as 'bellota', are fed acorns for their last few months, which impart a nutty sweetness to the jamón. The acorn harvest begins anytime between September and November, at which point the pigs are fattened up in a process called montanera, where they eat around 80% 0f their body weight in acorns over four months. But Iberico pigs are notoriously fussy and will only sniff out the best acorns to munch on.

Like wine, Iberico ham operates under a DO system, with four DOs currently in place in Salamanca, Extremadura, Huelva (home to the ham town of Jabugo) and Córdoba. The trend for Iberico ham is growing – earlier this year Harrods opened 5J Iberico Ham House, a restaurant dedicated to the marbled meat complete with in house 'maestro cortador' (master cutter).

Despite its rise in popularity, Iberico ham is sill very much a luxury product, making up only 5% of the Spanish ham market. Quality comes at a price – a pack of Joselito Gran Reserva will set you back £20, but the ham is at the top of its game and offers a melt-in-the-mouth taste that can't be copied – accept no imitations.

Dom Pérignon 2000 tasting note: attractive pale lemon colour with floral aromas and a light lemon lift. Subtle and refined, it showed elegance and finesse on the palate with wonderful freshness and delicate buttered biscuit aromas. Crisp, airy and rich in the mouth with honeyed nuances, the wine was surprisingly youthful for its nine years and had a long refreshing finish. Devastatingly drinkable.

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